The Mystery of Compassion on the Spectrum

Someone on the Autism Spectrum asked me: Can people with Asperger ‘s feel compassion? I have the impression that I can’t.

This was a question I had been dwelling on pretty much since I learned I had Asperger’s Syndrome a year ago. I responded to the question saying to my fellow “Aspie” that it is a mystery to me as to the moments I feel compassion and those I don’t.

There are times I hear a story or see one on the news or witness one in person that pulls at my heartstrings. But yet, when one would expect me to shed a bucket of tears I do not. If I could turn on the tears at will, they would be fake.

Years before I learned I was living on the Spectrum, I worked with a colleague who had a son diagnosed with Autism. When my co-worker’s Dad passed away, his son, who I believe was around 10 at the time, told his Grandmother he just couldn’t feel sad, or cry, about his Grandfather.  The Grandmother, knowing of her grandson’s autism, knew the child was being blatantly honest, but it still took a swipe at her heart.

I remember feeling stunned and sad at the time that this boy did not experience grief. However, if I had taken an in-depth look at my own past experiences with death, such as my own grandparents, I would have had a clue then that maybe I was autistic myself. If I had known then what I know now, I could have told my colleague I understood where his son was coming from.

I have a friend who lost her husband years ago. I cannot understand her going to visit his grave as often as she does. I don’t judge her. She’s not doing anything wrong. I haven’t ever married and so how could I understand losing a spouse. I care about my friend but I just can’t feel as her family and other friends do as far as having compassion and understanding for her ongoing grieving.

It seems I have more compassion for those in my outer circle than in my inner circle. I have gotten more teary-eyed over the death of someone’s pet than a relative or family friend. I don’t have an answer as to why I shed tears or why I don’t. I just have to accept it as something I can’t change. I am capable of caring; of compassion; it’s just in some situations I can and others it just isn’t there. I wish I had a sincere “compassion button”.  Then I could just turn it on and off, but there’s no such button.



I Want To See

The four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John gives us a narrative of the life of Jesus when He walked on this Earth among mankind.  One of the things that gives me comfort and encouragement are the stories where Jesus showed compassion on people who in the eyes of society did not deserve such.

Jesus didn’t limit his precious time on this Earth only to those who were in step with society.  Such as He visited the home of an unpopular chief tax collector named Zaccheus.  He had a conversation at a water well with a Samaritan woman who had a sordid past.  He allowed a woman described as one who lived a sinful life to pour perfume on his feet.

In Luke 18:35-43, there’s a story of Jesus showing compassion on someone who was among society’s forgotten.  Jesus was near the city of Jericho where among the people was a blind beggar sitting on the way side.  The blind man heard the commotion of the multitude and asked what was going on.  He was told that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by.  He recognized the name.  Even though he was disabled and an outcast, he had heard about Jesus, His teachings, and miraculous healing power. 

The blind man cried out, “Jesus, thou son of David, have mercy on me”.  He was hoping that Jesus might be willing to heal him too.  It didn’t hurt to ask!  Those around him were not encouraging him.  Instead, they were doing their level best to shut him up.  I guess they thought Jesus had no time for blind beggars any more than they did.  They probably would have preferred the blind man had left so he could be out of sight and out of mind.  Maybe he made them uncomfortable because of his disability.  Those with disabilities in today’s world could identify all too well with the blind beggar in this story.

The blind man ignored the pleas for him to keep his mouth shut.  In fact, he just got louder with his plea of “Thou son of David, have mercy on me”.

Jesus heard the pleas.  He could have looked the other way and continued on his journey to Jericho.  Instead, he stopped and beheld the man who couldn’t see him.  Jesus commanded him to be brought forward and when he came near, Jesus asked him what did the beggar want.  It had to have been obvious he was a blind man.  But Jesus wanted the man to tell him in his own words what he wanted.  Just as Jesus wants us to come to him in prayer with our troubles even though He already knows all about them.  The man’s response was short and to the point:  Lord, that I may receive my sight”.  He simply wanted to see.

It touches my heart that Jesus didn’t tell the man, “Your blindness isn’t my problem.  It’s your problem.”  Jesus didn’t just utter words about loving thy neighbor; He lived those words.  He taught us our neighbor isn’t only those who looks, acts, and talks like us, but those who don’t as well.  It isn’t just loving those who are physically and mentally healthy, but those who aren’t.

Jesus granted his request telling him, “Receive thy sight: thy faith hath saved thee”.  The man’s sight was instantly restored.  He glorified God and so did the people who witnessed another one of Jesus’s miracles.

The man’s faith did make all the difference.  If he had listened to the crowd who urged him to shut up, he would have gone away still a blind man.  He took it on faith that what He had heard about Jesus being God’s son was the truth.  He believed Jesus had the power to heal him and stubbornly refused to let anyone stop him from calling out to Jesus for mercy.  

On my job as a substitute teacher’s aide, I have the privilege of helping students who are outside of the student body mainstream.  Some of them have Down Syndrome, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), or are blind, deaf, or depend on a wheelchair to get around.  I also have the fortune of working with kids who are living on the same Autism spectrum as myself.  I can’t cure them of their disability any more than I can tell my constant companion of autism to go away.

But I can help them with their classwork, clap at their accomplishments, hug them when they want one, and encourage them to play on the playground.  I can see them and let them know I do.  Just like Jesus saw the blind beggar instead of looking the other way.


Jesus and the Rule-Abiding Ruler

As a substitute teacher’s aide in my hometown school district, I know the word “rules” is an unpopular word with probably a majority of the student body.  How many times have I seen a kid’s eyes roll up when reminded of a rule they were not adhering to?  More than I could possibly count.  I wonder sometimes if you told the kids to run down the hallway as fast as they could and shout as loud as they could instead of the typical line of “walk in straight line with a bubble (aka mouth closed)”, what would they do?  I reckon most of them would go ahead and run and shout anyway; that is, after they got over the shock of being told to go against the long established hallway rules.

I don’t shun rules.  Quite the contrary!  I need them!  I crave them!  A common trait on the autism spectrum is “strict adherence to the rules”.  If I am in an environment where there are no rules or it is assumed I should know them without being told, my anxiety level goes up.  I have a hard time understanding those who act as if the rules don’t apply to them.  Such as someone ahead of me in an express line of 15 items or less who has a cart full.

I know that some rules can be harsh and unfair, but without rules, chaos would reign and that would be bad.  Rules have their place in our lives, but even I, a rule abider, realizes there are times when rules come second.  Love and compassion should lead the way.

Rules vs. compassion remind me of a story about Jesus and a synagogue ruler.  On a Sabbath, Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for 18 years. She was bent all over and could not get up. When Jesus saw her, he had compassion on her.  He called her forward and said to her that she was now free from her infirmity. Then he put his hands on her and she immediately straightened up and praised God

You would think all those who saw this miraculous healing would have been cheering this woman who was no longer crippled.  Some were but not the synagogue ruler.  It wasn’t in the rulebook that one could be healed on the Sabbath.  That was the sticking point.  It was against the rules to do anything on the Sabbath, including healing, according to the synagogue ruler.  The ruler said to the people that there were six days of work.  If you want to the healed, come on those days, not the Sabbath.

The Lord did not keep silent and let the ruler have the last word.  He declared those crying foul were hypocrites.  He reminded them that they untie their oxen or donkey from the stall and lead it to water.  If that was okay, then why not the woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for 18 long years be set free on the Sabbath day?  The synagogue ruler did not have a comeback answer.

When Jesus said all this, his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things Jesus was doing.  You could say that between Jesus and the synagogue ruler, Jesus won the round that time.

The Sabbath day is a day of rest and worship.  Jesus demonstrated it isn’t a day of rest from us being about our Heavenly Father’s business of loving Him and our neighbors and showing that love with acts of kindness and compassion.  There’s not a bad day for loving your fellow man.

Children Need to be Heard Too

I was subbing for an elementary school P.E. coach’s sidekick.  The first half of class was walking laps outside around the baseball diamond.  While the coach watched sitting on an upside down bucket with his speaker phone, I walked the laps.  I thought my walking might inspire the kids to walk or run and not hide behind a tree to get out of the exercise.  With my gray hair, the kids think I’m the same age as Old Father Time.

A 1st-grade girl came up and took my hand.  Unlike me, the girl didn’t have a problem starting and carrying on a conversation.  We had an unspoken deal.  She did most of the talking and I did most of the listening.

She had a good reason for wanting to talk.  Her Grandpa passed away just 2 days earlier.  It wasn’t so much sadness I heard in her voice but curiosity.  Perhaps it was her first encounter with the death of a loved one.  He had strokes and as she put it, “he just died”.  She didn’t even know he was in the hospital until after he had passed away.  She had observed that her Grandma still had his clothes.  Other than telling her I was sorry about his passing, I just listened.  She just needed someone to talk to and that someone that day was me.

She didn’t want to go off and play in the playground as the other kids did when finishing their last lap.  She couldn’t hold up as long as some of the other kids because of her asthma.  It does get in her way sometimes.  It is routine for her to use the asthma inhaler as soon as she gets home from school.  She said pretty much her whole family had asthma.

I told her I had Asperger’s.   The word wasn’t familiar to her and I didn’t go into details about it.  She said she can’t run as much as her friends without wearing out.  I told her sometimes I am not up to being with people.  She said sometimes asthma gets her out of doing stuff she doesn’t want to do such as strenuous activities. I told her Asperger’s sometimes gets me out of going to parties.

Taking Jesus’s Word For It

In the fourth chapter of the book of John, Jesus was visiting Cana in Galilee. This was the same place where he turned the water into wine. Besides the usual crowd of common folk, there was a royal official. He was perhaps an officer in King Herod’s service. He was not the typical Jesus follower. But he was someone’s dad and that someone lay sick at death’s door in Capernaum.

He had perhaps seen or heard, like many had in Galilee, of the miracles Jesus had done.  Many of those Galileans welcomed Jesus only because of the miracles and wanted to see more.  It was like in our day of wanting to see a brilliant magic show.  They were far more interested in Jesus’s miracles than His message.  But this royal official didn’t come from Capernaum to watch a show.  He didn’t just want to see any miracle.  He wanted one of his own for his dying son.

Jesus told the crowd who had gathered that unless they saw miraculous signs and wonders, they would never believe.  In the midst of the crowd, the desperate father spoke up and asked Jesus to please heal his son before he dies.  Jesus didn’t ignore this officer who perhaps was one of Herod’s men.  He treated him no different as he would someone with no position of authority.  He replied by telling the officer he may leave now.  His son would live.  Jesus made the man a promise and the scripture states the man took Jesus at his word.

Before the man got home the next day, his servants met him with the wonderful news that his boy was living.  He asked what time did his son get better and it was the same time the day before when Jesus had given his word that his son would live.  This official must have shared his story with his house for the scripture states that he and all his household believed.  I’m assuming that included his son who might have died if his father had not sought Jesus and if Jesus hadn’t kept his word.

You probably heard an old saying, “My word is my bond.”  One who says such is claiming they’ll keep their word.  If they say they are going to do whatever, one can take it to the bank that whatever will be done.  Perhaps you know of people who if they say their word is their bond, you roll up your eyes.  You’re thinking, “I’ll believe it when I see it and not a moment before then.”  You love the person dearly, but they are more or less a dreamer.  They may mean to, but they just don’t get around to fulfilling their dream.

So there are times when one should take it with a grain of salt when coming from someone who has proven themselves unreliable with word-keeping.  We should also look at own selves’ track record of keeping our word.

Has Jesus ever broken his word to you?  Sure we have storms in our lives.  Sometimes short one; and sometimes long ones.  They can be so long that we may think we will never see daylight again.  But I haven’t seen a storm in my life end without daylight.  Not yet.  The ending might be far more than I ever expected.  It also may not have ended the way I hoped or dreamed, but it did end and I took Jesus’s word for it by faith that it ended for the best.